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A Grain of Truth About Healthy Foods

Sandwiched between the sugar-coated cereals are the cartoon-free boxes that push more adult concerns, such as a "good source of whole grains." Next to the white bread, whole grains pop-up again, offering a loaf of bread that can "fight heart disease and certain cancers."

In the battle to win your dollar, food companies are now appealing more and more to your health. Dr. Nadine Sahyoun, a nutrition expert at the University of Maryland, says itís about time.

"If it makes people more aware, thatís great." she says.

With the recent plummet of low-fat diets, which after an eight-year long study, failed to show much help, Sahyoun is quick to say that she and others do not know the full story on whole grains. But in the confusion over what diet is best, her advice is refreshingly simple.

"Itís a question about substituting some foods for others." says Sahyoun, which can be as easy as eating a piece of whole grain bread instead of white. Both are roughly the same in calories, the same in fat, but one is high in refined sugars and flour, whereas the other is naturally good for you.

In a recent study, Sahyoun looked at whether whole grain foods could help older adults ward off the type of problems that lead to heart disease and diabetes. The elderly are more prone to insulin resistance and impaired blood sugar control, implying that carbohydrate-rich grains might do more harm than good.

But looking at 535 healthy seniors, the researchers found that getting more than three servings of whole grains a day was as good for them as it is for young and middle-aged adults. Compared to those who ate fewer whole grains, healthy eaters had lower rates of heart disease and the type of blood sugar problems that could raise the risk of diabetes.

The results, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, add to the growing benefits seen with whole grains. In contrast to refined grains, such as in white rice, research has shown that brown rice and other types of whole grains may indeed reduce the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and various cancers.

The latest governmental dietary guidelines call for three ounces of whole grains a day, which are easy to pile on with wheat bread, cereals, brown rice and even whole grain tortilla chips. This has led to a type of marketing war, with companies pushing to add a whole grain stamp to their foods.

In a petition to the Food and Drug Administration, General Mills asked for a standard "good" or "excellent" stamp to be allowed on their packaging, based on how much whole grain it contained. The FDA, in an initial ruling, has so far refused to sanction it.

The agency recommends having companies list the amount of whole grains on their packaging, rather than having a "good" or "excellent" stamp. Nevertheless, as of early 2006, at least 49 different companies have put the stamp on 561 products, according to the Whole Grains Council, a lobbying group.

Sahyoun shrugs off the new-found attention in pushing for more whole grains.

"Itís not that hard." she says, to figure out what is healthy to eat.

Whole grain is the first ingredient listed on food packages that are high in them. They are not necessarily in "brown" or "hearty grain" bread, so check the labeling before you buy something that looks wholesome. Oatmeal, popcorn and wild rice are also good sources for whole grains. Experts recommend getting half of your grains from whole grain sources. The best way is to substitute one grain for another, instead of adding more.

"We donít need to go overboard on this." Sahyoun says.

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